Passionate about people, places, adventure and life, Áshildur is a guide, blogger, food enthusiast, and business expert. Hiking is her ultimate therapy, yoga her spiritual practice, and books her escape. She is an Icelander living in Reykjavik.
Heimaey Island is the main spot to see when visiting Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands. The Westman Islands are an archipelago of 15 islands and some rock stacks that were formed approximately 11,000 years ago.
Sometimes called “The Pearl in the Ocean,” Vestmannaeyjar has also been described as “The Capri of the North“ because of the many sea caves found there, a feature similar to the famous Mediterranean caves of the isle of Capri.
Heimaey, the biggest and the only inhabited island of the Westman Islands, is a cheerful and vibrant spot that attracts locals and visitors year around. Six of the other bigger islands have single hunting cabins and some are visible from Heimaey.
Heimaey’s scenery is amazingly beautiful. From its volcanic landscape and moss-covered cliffs to its quaint houses and brightly colored roofs, this spot is sure to warm your heart.
The History of Heimaey
The Westman Islands were formed by submarine eruptions between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago. The latest volcanic eruption took place on January 23, 1973, when previously unknown fissure beneath Heimaey opened up less than a mile from the town. The 1,600 meter long fissure traversed from shore to shore and within two days a cinder-spatter cone named Eldfell, or “Fire Mountain,“ rose more than 100 meters above sea level.
The eruption lasted nearly 5 months but, miraculously, no lives were lost. However, the entire population had to evacuate the island within hours, giving them little chance to save valuables or taking any belongings with them to the mainland.
Dozens of houses were destroyed. Many were swallowed by the lava while others were set on fire when they were hit by bombs of glowing magma. Houses out of reach of the magma were also in danger as thick layers of ash, tephra and volcanic slag were deposited on the town, causing roofs to cave in.
Hundreds of volunteers stayed on the island. They tried to save the town by building walls and blocking streets in an effort to divert the flow of the lava away from the town. Water was pumped on to the lava to help solidify it and slow the advance of the lava flow.
The operation in Heimaey was completely unique and the first attempt by humans to mount a full-scale defense against a volcanic eruption.
In August 1973 people began returning to their homes. Many decided not to return at all because their homes had been destroyed or because they had started a new life on the mainland.
Things to Do in Heimaey
Heimaey is quite small, although it is the biggest island off the coastline of Iceland. Almost everything is within walking distance of the town center. The island is only around 6 km in length. You can find steep cliff hikes around the north of the peninsula, while the land is flat and grassy around the southern shore.
Heimaklettur, The Iconic Home Rock Of Heimaey
Heimaklettur, located just northeast of the town, is a good first spot to spy on seabirds. Heimaklettur, or the Home Rock, is the biggest rock in the jumbled chain of cliffs wrapped around the harbor of Heimey. It is also the highest mountain on Heimaey, at 279 meters, and a defining landmark of the island.
Its bulky shape is visible from every point in town. With its stark cliffs, it may look a bit daunting and inaccessible. However, a walking trail leads you to the top and with ladders and chains to help you up the steeper sections.
Eldfell and Helgafell, sometimes named the twin volcanoes, are close to town. They can be accessed by a dozen or more trails and are not too steep to climb.
The colorful Eldfell is the easiest hike and a mountain that every visitor should climb. Eldfell is just over 200 meters high. It takes no more than 15 minutes to walk one of the trails up to the top. You will be rewarded with a wealth of scenery and colorful volcanic rocks.
Eldfellwas created in the volcanic eruption of Heimaey in 1973. The wealth of scenery and astonishing red colours of the rocks at the top make it worth the climb. You’ll see fumaroles with yellow crusts of sulphur and glittering with thousands of micro-crystals. Puffs of steam still escape from holes in the ground lined with gypsum crystals.
Immediately southwest of Eldfell is a similar volcanic cone named Helgafell, which is a bit taller and some 5000 years older than Eldfell. For a long time, Helgafell was the ruling volcano on Heimaey.
Helgafell has a small heart-shaped crater in its center. The trail can be somewhat challenging in parts due to its steepness and loose gravelly bits along the way, but it does not take long to hike up and is worth the trouble.
Today Helgafellis a dormant volcano, although it is thought likely to erupt again in the future.
Herjólfsdalur, The Valley Of Magic
Herjólfsdalur is a beautiful green valley. It looks like a giant natural amphitheater, with stupendous rocks rising up on all sides as you enter. The valley is a 10,000-year-old collapsed volcanic crater named after the island’s first settler, Herjólfur Bárdarson. In the valley is a turf farmstead, Herjólfsbær, that was built as a recreational center for Herjólfur’s home.
The cliffs over the little jagged inlet on the western side of the meadow are a good place to look for puffins in the summer. If you have some extra time, a walking path leads south from Herjólfsdalur along the island’s western shore.
Each year a three-day festival called Þjóðhátíð or “The National Festival“ is held in Herjólfsdalur. Thousands of locals and guests gather in for various events including big stage concerts, bonfires, firework displays and crowd singing. Þjóðhátíð was first held in 1874 and has grown to become the largest multiday festival in Iceland.
Stórhöfði, The Windiest Place In Europe
Stórhöfði peninsula is the southernmost point of Heimaey and thought to be the windiest place in Europe. Stórhöfði or “the Great Cape“ was created by a volcanic eruption in the seabed some 6,000 years ago. It’s famous for its steep cliffs crowded with seabirds.
Stórhöfði is one of the biggest puffin breeding colonies in the world. The abundance of puffins in the summer months has people flocking to the island to see these striking birds with their large and brightly colored beaks.
On the top is one of the oldest lighthouses in Iceland and a working weather station. About halfway up the hill is a little green hut for birdwatching, which gives you the chance to take a closer look at puffins and other seabirds on the cliffs of Stórhöfði.
Sailing Around Heimaey
Seeing Heimaey from sea is really spectacular. I highly recommend this experience when visiting Iceland. Steep and craggy mountain ridges, rocky coastlines, dramatic sea cliffs and sea caves, and hidden beaches are among the things you will see and experience.
It is not uncommon to see whales and seals. You’re also likely to meet some beautiful puffins as the Westman Islands are considered the largest Atlantic puffin colony in the world. When visiting in summer you will have the chance to see baby pufflings leave the nest and take flight for the first time. There is a longstanding tradition of Icelandic children saving the misguided pufflings that end up lost and lonely on land instead of reaching the ocean as expected.
When sailing around the island you will most likely visit one or two of the 14 sea caves in the Westmans. Fjósin or “The Stable“ is the most famous sea cave. It is best to visit at sunset when the light sheds rich, fascinating effects in green, blue and red inside the cave. Another well-known and much visited cave is Klettshellir. It is the largest cave in the Westman Islands and is known for its marvelous acoustics.
Spranga, The Local Sport Of Heimaey
Spranga is a local sport in Heimaey similar to cliff rappelling. Spranga is rooted in a long-standing tradition in Vestmannaeyjar wherein locals would climb the cliffs to fetch seabirds’ eggs. They hang on ropes from the edge of the cliffs, springing from one place to the next. Before embarking on their first journey, they had to train themselves on a spot called Sprangan.
Sprangan is close to the harbour. Today locals and visitors can try the sport for themselves. We highly recommend being accompanied by an experienced local if you’re going to try. Spranga is far from being easy and can be dangerous if done incorrectly.
Skansinn And The Harbour On Heimaey
The fishing fleet jostles for space with the ferry and a small fleet of pleasure boats in Heimaey´s snug harbour. East of the harbour is a 15th century fort built to defend the harbour from English traders and fishing operators who did not respect local trade restrictions. Its walls were destroyed in the 1973 eruption, but some have been rebuilt. Above them are the remains of the town‘s old water tanks, which were also crushed by the flowing lava.
The beautiful stave church Skansinn is also there, a replica of the first church built in the Westman Island in around 1000 AD. The wooden stave church was built in 2000 to mark the millennium of Christianity in Iceland and was donated by Norway. Above the stave church is one of the oldest houses in Heimaey and the first maternity hospital in Iceland, built in 1848. The restored maternity hospital in a black old house called Landlyst is now a small medical museum.
How To Get Heimaey?
The best way to travel to Heimaey Island byferry from Landeyjahöfn harbour on the south coast. The ferry is scheduled 7 times per day and the trip takes 35-40 minutes one way. You can take your car, bicycle and motorhome on the ferry, but make sure to book your ticket in advance, especially in the summer time as they tend to sell out.
Flights are also available to and from Heimaey but are usually not scheduled daily. Check the flight schedulehere.
Heimaey is quite small even though it’s the biggest island off the coastline of Iceland. Almost everything is within walking distance of the harbour so you don‘t have to bring your car. However, the southernmost point of the island, Stórhöfði, is more than 5 kilometers distance from the harbour, so a car will help if you want lto explore the whole island in one day.